Pursuit of global footprint called key driver of Bunge success

by Josh Sosland
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Recognition that establishing a global presence is crucial for grains and oilseeds companies thriving in the 21st century stands as a principal factor in the success of Bunge Ltd. in the years since its 2001 initial public offering, said the man who led the company in its first dozen years as a public company.

Alberto Weisser, who recently retired as chief executive and will be executive chairman through the end of 2013, offered his perspectives on globalization of the grain business during a July interview with Milling & Baking News magazine.

“The main reason (for the i.p.o.) was our recognizing that times had changed,” he said. “Either you become global and large, or you can’t compete. So we needed money to do acquisitions and make investments.”

The degree to which Bunge has succeeded at becoming a truly global company must be measured against where the company stood in 1996. It was that year when the company completed divesting a number of businesses it decided did not represent a strategic fit.

“Most people don’t realize it, but after we restructured the business, I would say two-thirds of the profit were in North America,” Mr. Weisser said.

With the earnings generated in North America and the i.p.o. proceeds, the company had the base for building its presence in South America. Europe followed and then Asia.

“Now we are doing Australia and Africa,” he said. “Growing in key geographies and products allows us to continue building our global network.”

Excluding its sugarcane milling operations located solely in Brazil, Mr. Weisser described Bunge today as “very balanced” geographically.

“In the mid-2000s we started focusing much more on India and China,” he said. “Both are growing but are still early investments.”

With locations in multiple geographies and in multiple products, the company believes it is well-positioned to serve customers.

“Everything is connected,” Mr. Weisser said. “Developments in one region affect other regions. Take the example of last year’s drought, which drastically affected the corn market.

“Low supply led to high prices and increased volatility. But we were able to quickly switch our origination program from the U.S. to Brazil to ensure our customers got the products they needed.”

Bunge today has a global footprint in all its key markets, a description Mr. Weisser said does not apply to any other grain exporter besides Cargill.

Bunge’s long-term share price performance offers validation of the company’s strategy. Even with a few rocky quarters in the past year because of weaker oilseed processing margins, Bunge racked up an average annual total shareholder return between August 2001 and May 2013 of 15%, a much better rate of return than the 3% for the S.&P. 500 or the 9% for Bunge’s peer group. Shareholder equity in 2012 was $10.9 billion, up from $1.8 billion in 2001.

As dramatic as Bunge’s growth has been, and despite the size and strength of its largest competitors and the emergence of new major players, opportunities for further expansion are not closed to the company or to the industry, Mr. Weisser said.

“Many people talk about the consolidation of this industry,” he said. “But it’s still very fragmented. When you look around the world, it’s 2.5 billion tonnes of oilseeds and grains that are sold. And when you look at what we do, the quantity is small. You add Cargill, ADM, Bunge, Dreyfus, it’s still small. There are years of growth ahead of us.”

The fragmented state of world commodity handling and trade helps explain the emergence in recent years of new large players like Olam International Ltd., Glencore Xstrata and Wilmar International, Mr. Weisser said. These entrants evolved amid a marketplace that was already undergoing wrenching change.

“Continental Grain and Andre disappeared so we took over a lot of the business, as did Cargill,” Mr. Weisser said. “You used to have many more smaller brokers. That doesn’t work any more. You can’t have single individual commercial people doing it because you need the assets. I think that is probably the big change that now affects this business — you need assets. That’s why you need strong, global companies, and that is why you see also companies like Marubeni buying Gavilon. And the third tier companies becoming second tier. Or Glencore buying Viterra. There is room for these companies.”

Adding to the importance of a global footprint is re-emergence of Eastern Europe in grains and growth of South America as large exporters of grain, Mr. Weisser said.

“In the early 1990s most of the grain came from the U.S. and now it is more evenly originated — North America, including Canada; South America — Argentina, Brazil; Eastern Europe — Ukraine, Russia,” he said. “That is major change. And that also means substitution occurs with wheat, barley, corn and other grains. That is why our teams are global. Our Bunge Global Markets staff includes Danes, Americans, Dutch, Brazilians, Argentines, Italians, Russians. When you go into our different operations you would be amazed how many nationalities there are. We want that range of experience.”

Tracing Bunge’s path toward establishing a global footprint, Mr. Weisser said efforts intensified in the largest emerging nations after the company had established a strong presence in the Americas and Europe. The key move was the 2002 acquisition of a controlling interest in Cereol S.A., which made Bunge the world’s largest oilseeds processor.

For Bunge as well as other companies, consolidation does not necessarily mean colossal acquisitions, Mr. Weisser said.

“In our expansion into Australia and Africa, we are acquiring smaller local players, partnering in joint ventures and growing organically,” he said. “But it’s not just expanding geographies, it’s also expanding relationships with our customers. We’ve moved from being a supplier to a partner. We work with our customers on everything from developing new products to replacing ingredients in existing products to anticipating consumer trends. We have invested a lot in business intelligence and have built a new innovation center in the U.S.”

From an asset basis, Bunge also has invested in the food ingredient sector. In North America, for example, the company rebuilt a Bunge Oils facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and built a new packaging plant in Decatur, Ill., to replace aging infrastructure in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A global footprint is not necessarily at odds with a streamlined corporate structure, Mr. Weisser said. In a 2002 interview with Milling & Baking News, he said Bunge’s corporate headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., did not and would not have a large number of the company’s workforce. He said a decentralized structure and an “entrepreneurial spirit” were critical to success going forward. The largest part of Bunge’s business remains selling to the feed and food industry with localized operations around the world, and so to a significant degree, the Bunge approach has not changed. In the 2013 interview, he said entrepreneurship remains a key part of the value system that has been the focus of his tenure.

“I think it is still the same spirit,” he said. “I feel very strongly about my contribution to building the culture and team, and that is reflected in our values — integrity, teamwork, entrepreneurship, openness and trust, and citizenship. We could not have grown as much as we have without these values.

“But one thing that has evolved, as we have grown and as the market has changed, is our decentralized business model. Today, we are both decentralized and integrated. We have functions that connect the dots around the world, not only here in White Plains but also in St. Louis, Geneva and Singapore. When customers are buying in Asia, and we are buying from farmers in the Americas, then somebody has to connect the dots. Certain functions are completely decentralized close to the market, but when it comes to risk management, when it comes to controls, you have to have a centralized approach. So the business has evolved.”

Expanding on how entrepreneurship has manifested itself at Bunge over the past generation, Mr. Weisser said the company’s positioning from a “second-tier regional company” in 1996 to the top global oilseeds processor today only could have been achieved through acquisitions. He described a more nimble Bunge corporate culture very different than the stereotypical large company corporate culture with layers of executives hesitant to “pull the trigger.”

“In order to do smart acquisitions you have to be locally connected and empowered,” he said. “So I empowered my team to do things. Obviously when they came up with ideas I participated in the negotiation, but they created the opportunity. Then we could move fast. We never would have been able to grow as much as we have if we didn’t have this entrepreneurial spirit.”

The importance of having a global network of assets has been heightened by climate change, Mr. Weisser said. He noted Bunge currently operates 30 ports, up from only 4 when he joined the company.

“Suddenly you have a drought here, you have a drought there, and you still have to serve your customers,” he said. “Remember when we had the major drought in Russia in 2010. We served customers in the Middle East and Spain, not from Russia, but from America and Brazil. We did this in a couple of days, re-routing the products. With the Arab Spring, who is continuing to feed the Middle East? You have to have skills and assets, and you have to have the team to do that. You need to be everywhere and strong.”

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